Joseph Quesnel | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Joseph Quesnel

Quesnel, (Louis) Joseph (Marie). Merchant, composer, violinist, playwright, poet, actor, b St-Malo, France, 15 Nov 1746, d Montreal 3 Jul 1809. (Research by John Hare of the University of Ottawa has revealed that Quesnel's birthdate probably was 1746, not 1749 as has been assumed.

Quesnel, Joseph

Quesnel, (Louis) Joseph (Marie). Merchant, composer, violinist, playwright, poet, actor, b St-Malo, France, 15 Nov 1746, d Montreal 3 Jul 1809. (Research by John Hare of the University of Ottawa has revealed that Quesnel's birthdate probably was 1746, not 1749 as has been assumed.) Following a family tradition young Quesnel became a sailor, visiting Pondicherry, Madagascar, Guinea, and Senegal on a three-year voyage 1768-71 and French Guyana, the Antilles, and Brazil in 1772. In 1779 he commanded the corsaire L'Espoir and was sailing from Bordeaux to New York with munitions and provisions for the American rebels when the ship was captured by the British off Nova Scotia, and Quesnel was taken to Halifax. Approaching Sir Frederick Haldimand, governor of Quebec, who happened also to be a family acquaintance, Quesnel was allowed to go free and settle in Canada. Early the following year he married a Canadian, Marie-Josephte Deslandes in Montreal. The certificate calls him a 'négociant,' a wholesale merchant or trader. It appears that Quesnel was more than the village merchant described in Jules Fournier's Anthologie des poètes canadiens (1920); in fact he was a successful trader who exported furs to France and imported wine. (A journey, probably in 1787, to the region around Michilimackinac and the source of the Mississippi and another, 1788-9, to England and France provide the evidence for this.) As far as is known Quesnel remained henceforth in Canada (residing in Boucherville near Montreal but returning to Montreal before his death). Of his 13 children, 2 became widely known: Frédéric-Auguste as a member of the legislative assembly of Lower Canada and Jules-Maurice as an explorer after whom the British Columbia city Quesnel is named.

By family background and schooling Quesnel had acquired a knowledge of French literature and music. The plays of Molière, the writings of Boileau, and a violin are said to have been his steady companions. Stimulated by the lack of sophisticated entertainment in the new world, he set about applying his talents to performing and writing for the amusement of himself and his friends, and limned the situation in a poem:

I made my way to Canada, and here

Was welcomed with all manner of good cheer:

I'd no complaint. But - music? Oh, the pity!

At table, naught but some old drinking ditty;

In church, two or three worn-out old motets

Sung to a gasping organ out of breath.

Oh, hideous all. So for my heart's release,

See me composing music! First, a piece

For some religious business - grave or gay?

Was it or was it not, for Christmas Day?

I can't remember; but I mixed up wholly:

Gaiety, pathos, sweet, sour, melancholy,

Through every flat, sharp, natural ran the gamut:

Never before was I so brilliant, d-- it!

And what was the result? Why, in a rage,

They said my airs were fitter for the stage.

One swore the service almost made him dance,

Another urged I be sent back to France;

Everyone fell upon me in a rout;

The Sex joined in (especially the devout):

'Good God,' said one, 'this irreligious din

Would lead the Saints in Paradise to sin.'

'O Christ,' another said, 'when the notes swell

'Tis like the imps at loggerheads in hell!'

'Twas then, apprised of Novelty's reward,

I saw my hopes all going by the board.

- Well, to the ear (if at all delicate)

My music, entre nous, is rather flat:

But did they want a Handel, a Grétry?

By God, then, they must find him oversea;

And my own little public work, I thought,

Deserved a better public than it got.

('Épître à M Labadie,' Joseph Quesnel 1749-1809, ed Michael Gnarowski, Montreal 1970, transl John Glassco)

According to Huston, Quesnel's compositions included songs, duos, motets, quartets, and symphonies, but none of these have survived. Extant, in addition to many literary works, are the vocal parts of two operas, Colas et Colinette and Lucas et Cécile, along with the second violin part and the libretto for the former. Quesnel wrote Colas et Colinette after his European visit, during which, in Bordeaux, he probably heard some of the latest French operas. Quesnel's charming works are among the first operas written in North America; based on French models they reveal melodic inventiveness and technical competence. Colas was staged first in Montreal, 14 Jan 1790 (12 days before Mozart's Così fan tutte was premiered in Vienna) by the Théâtre de Société, an enterprise of Quesnel, Louis Dulongpré, and others, that was begun in 1789. Lucas, presumably written after Colas, was scheduled for the 1808-09 season, but evidently the performance never took place. The music shows a greater degree of sophistication.

Quesnel remained active as a writer of poems (of which at least 34 survive), including 'Lecture to young actors' ('Adresse aux jeunes acteurs du Théâtre de Société à Québec,' 1804). His plays include Les Républicains français (ou, La Soirée du cabaret), a one-act prose comedy in which he expressed his preference for the British monarchy, and the one-act verse comedy L'Anglomanie (ou, Le dîner à l'anglaise, 1802) in which he ridiculed the aping of foreign manners. Although Les Républicains français includes sung passages, the tunes are those of existing French songs.

The revival of Colas et Colinette in Quebec in 1805 and 1807 and Quesnel's letters to the publisher John Neilson regarding the printing of the music of the opera attest to the reputation he had achieved. For some years the memory of 'Le père des amours,' as he was called affectionately by the French poet Joseph Mermet, was kept alive. William Notman, the photographer, reported in 1868 that Quesnel 'has been described as a gentleman of cheerful temperament and nice tastes, who was happy in promoting the happiness of other people.' Indeed, Quesnel attempted not to scale the heights of Parnassus but to supply a need for wholesome diversion and to encourage the appetite for music and drama among his 10,000 contemporaries in Montreal.

The concluding lines of the 'Épître à M Labadie,'

This vision of the future I can see

And prophesy such fame for you and me

As shall make us renowned through Canada,

And hailed from Vaudreuil to Kamouraska,

indeed have become true for Quesnel, if not for Labadie (a local schoolteacher). Eugène Lapierre based his opéra-comique Le Père des amours (1942) on Quesnel's life. Colas et Colinette received several performances subsequent to its revival in 1963 in Godfrey Ridout's restoration and has been recorded and published. John Beckwith created a new orchestral accompaniment for Lucas et Cécile for performances of selections from the work in 1990. A complete edition of Quesnel's surviving works was initiated by John Hare of Ottawa. The Canadian Music Centre has granted Quesnel the associate status reserved for deceased composers whose works the centre holds.

Further Reading